Akron Irish: Symbiology
By Lisa O’Rourke
If a car could enjoy its locomotion, the black Audi rental was certainly enjoying its gallop on the straight country roads as much as its driver and much more so than the nervous passengers. The roads in Northern Ireland are a change from the winding cow paths of the South.
We were heading to Belfast to see the Titanic museum, completing a novel pleasant visit to the North. As we neared Belfast, the country roads and tidy bordered farms led onto faded brick housing estates that maintained their tidy borders with little Union Jack and Red Hand flags. Little flags mixed with bigger flags and signs. And we were so clo
It might seem crazy to leave a place because of flags. It might be. As an American tourist, I probably would not. But traveling with someone with a south-of-the-border accent and name, the equation changes.
In the North
Those things are not neutral in the still often politically charged North. Those symbols, those flags, are not neutral either. They are the nationalistic dog lifting his proverbial leg, marking territory, marking history. We don’t belong to either side, but we could be considered on the wrong side. And that kind of jingoism is just unsettling.
As a country, Ireland has never been afraid to tear things down. At the time of the Irish Independence and Civil War, 275 manor houses were burnt, blown up and otherwise destroyed. They were perceived as part of the feudal landlord system and in the eyes of the Republican rebels, they had to go as surely as tea had to drop into the Boston Harbor. The estate that was closest to my husband’s home, just down the road, was owned and occupied by the Balfe family. They were English landlords.
The story is that they were good people as it goes; kind toward the locals, going as far as donating land for the local National school, which still stands today. That contrasts with their home. All that is left of it are some stone border walls. It was blown up in 1921 during the War for independence.
The opulent country homes were symbols of the wealth and Downton Abbey lifestyles that belonged to the gentry and denied the natives. They were beautiful homes. There were plenty of people who were upset by the destruction of those places. While others delighted in the routing of the colonizers.
Anyone who has been to the North has seen the murals in the cities, especially Belfast. The most famous Catholic mural depicts a smiling Bobby Sands. The most famous Protestant mural shows the Red Hand of Ulster.
These have begun to disappear. They are powerful symbols, but maybe too powerful. The respective communities have surrendered them and given way to murals painted by children or ones that depict a unified pride.
It is tough to move on from violence when the symbols of it surround you. Good for you if you think that flags are just decoration – could just as easily be a pink flag with a unicorn on it; it just isn’t true. The truth is the flags were there for a reason.
As I am writing this, another Orange season looms over Belfast. I know that not everyone thinks this is a bad thing or will agree or understand this perspective, but I have a small understanding from being around the North; it’s not a good time of year to visit. Many Catholics, especially children, leave the North at this time of year.
Change is happening. It is not as fast in some places as others. It gives hope that this climate will add perspective to the situation in the North. Perspective is what is needed now. I know that I am not alone in taking a historical view on the tearing down of monuments. Like it or not, I think that it is the only one to take.
Columbus in Ireland
Yes, a small vocal minority might be making decisions that are not embraced by all. That is how change happens. Some things will go that we look back on and say darn, why that one?
It is not happening exclusively in the U.S. either. A group in Galway wants a statue of Columbus removed. A little background, Columbus is there because he supposedly stopped in Galway on his way to America.
Did he do bad things to Ireland? Nope. But he is a symbol of something that the Irish can relate to as not being great- he was a colonizer. Once upon a time, we saw them as great adventurers. Not so much now. The current depiction is more like great pillagers, exploiting the world for their gain.
It is hard to be all the way against it, it is evolution, what was done to get where we are now. But I think that the sun has set on the explorer’s compass. The world now needs to move to conservation. Citizens need to work as stewards of the world’s resources.
We have to take care of what we have and look for ways to maintain it. It demands new heroes, new exemplars of the direction that we need to move toward. As statues fall and flags are banned, we are the immediate recorders and interpreters of history.
We are living in a moment of change. It may not all seem fair. It probably isn’t. But it feels like our eyes should be looking forward toward who we will become, instead of back on who we were. I look forward to the day that I get another drive in a black Audi and see the Titanic museum finally.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge, and runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel and spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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